Scotsman Obituaries: George Montgomery MBE, psychologist who championed Deaf

George Montgomery MBE, BA, M.Ed, Ph.D, H.Dip.E, C.Psychol, Hon.D.Litt (Gallaudet), psychologist. Born: 28 September 1926 in Wallsend, North Tyneside. Died: 21 March 2021 in Tranent, East Lothian, aged 94

George Montgomery in 1991, with a book written by former pupils at Donaldson's College (Picture: Crauford Tait)

George William Guthrie Montgomery was brought up a Baptist, the elder of two brothers, and son of a stoker in the Royal Navy. In 1944, towards the end of the Second World War, he signed up for duty, spending time with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, based in Berwick. As well as postings within the UK, armed service took him as an Army Regimental & Staff Officer to Africa and the Far East. His time in Africa was spent with the Royal West African Frontier Force in Nigeria.

He met his wife Joan in a Newcastle pub where she was working behind the bar, and they married in 1956. She was an artist and later a primary teacher at Donaldson’s, Edinburgh, before teaching part-time at Windsor Park, Falkirk, upon retirement. Together they were editor and assistant editor for Deaf History Journal, the organ of the British Deaf History Society, for a year from December 2002, before setting up Deaf History Review, which ran for several years.

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George studied professional Psychology at Dublin and Edinburgh, where he also started school teaching. In 1959 he transitioned to begin a productive career with Edinburgh University, first as an Assistant Lecturer in the Department of Psychology, before becoming an Honorary, then finally Senior Lecturer, in the Department. During this time he lectured in Applied Psychology, as well as being Director of Studies in the Faculty of Social Studies from 1970 to 1976. Throughout most of this period he was Director of the Research Unit and Clinic of the Donaldson Trust (1962-1995) and Governor of Donaldson’s College for the Deaf (1970-2004). An earlier period saw him as a Consultant to a Civil Service Commission with the Department of Employment and Scottish Home & Health Department (1962-1978) .

As well as continual casework with deaf clients from 1963-2004, he was in constant demand for consultancy purposes and served on various selection boards, including Lothian Regional Council, the Department of Education, Scottish Police, Edinburgh Master Printers Association, the Royal National Institute of the Deaf and the Church of Scotland. He somehow also found time to conduct IQ tests on behalf of Mensa for members of the public at his research unit on Saturdays. This was accompanied by a prodigious written output over the years. He authored, part-authored and edited 11 books, plus numerous papers, articles and reports, including chapters in additional books and taking a hand in several other publications.

A regular contributor to the proceedings and socio-cultural spirit of World Federation of the Deaf congresses – at which he was also famed for organising their whisky parties – his main field was in applied psychology for deaf clients. Very early on he had developed a tremendous interest in deafness, with a great concern to encourage deaf people to aim higher in career and society by gaining confidence and self-belief. He had a particular interest in furthering their employment opportunities, as he wanted to dismiss public misconceptions about the inabilities of deaf people. Employment levels are, even yet, miserably low at 40 per cent. He thus zealously promoted the adage “We, the deaf, can do anything but HEAR!” by introducing deaf writers in his anthology of deaf writing.

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Hailed as “instrumental to the development of deaf people’s identity”, his was a landmark contribution. A holder of the British Psychological Society’s award for the advancement of equal opportunities, in 1991 he was also awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters from Gallaudet University, Washington DC. Founded in 1864, this is the world's only university in which all programmes and services are specifically designed to accommodate deaf and hard of hearing students. As a bilingual, diverse and multicultural institution, it seeks to ensure the intellectual and professional advancement of individuals through American Sign Language and English. The honour was followed, from 1994-95, by him taking the Chair of Deaf Studies in their Department of Research. In 1997 he was included in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, receiving an MBE for services to the Donaldson Trust, Edinburgh, and to Deaf People.

Much travelled, and a frequent and popular speaker, George loved the English language and was skilful in his oratory. Often remembered for his sign-name – a letter “G” (one fist upon another) but moved in a circular motion, as if stirring a cauldron, to signify “stirring the pot” – he was unafraid to speak up for deaf needs and was frequently controversial, sometimes to the horror of sectors of the deaf world. He was known also for his somewhat erratic use of British Sign Language; on one occasion, at the British Deaf Association Congress in Eastbourne in 1977, he put it down to his being “manually retarded”. Although not always a great signer, he got by, and as a strong advocate of the use of sign language in educational settings, George was a constant and great supporter of those who did so.

Although the marital home always remained in Edinburgh, much time was spent with his family at Saltoun Hall, near Pencaitland, East Lothian. Away from a world of work, it was there he found time to play with his grandchildren and mess about in the nearby river. Described as a “Renaissance Man” – full of curiosity and with a great interest in history, arts, and so forth – he was witty, funny, a raconteur of anecdotes and knowledgeable on everything around him. He will always be remembered with gratitude.

George leaves behind his wife Joan, his son Gus and three grandchildren, plus a tremendous legacy in the deaf world.

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